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Defiant steps powered by will to live

Her words first came from anger. But six years down the line, the anger has had no reason to diminish. No reason, except a will to live, a determination to make a change.

Jahnabi Goswami’s name is new to few. Her husband was the first recorded HIV positive case Assam saw, in 1996. But he was dead by the time he was diagnosed, having passed on the disease to his wife and daughter.

Jahnabi’s in-laws threw her — and her infant daughter — out of the house a fortnight after her husband's death. The child died — on her October 18 birthday — the next year. The 27-year-old still had no reason to let go of her anger.

But she has. She has put it aside her pain long enough to face the camera and tell her tale — the first-ever HIV patient in India to do so. She has ignored the uncertainty — despite not finding a home in all of Guwahati — to campaign for the rights of people living with HIV. She has forgiven the pain inflicted by her in-laws — to counsel whole villages to accept their own.

“I don’t want a Jahnabi born to any other family in Assam,” says the warm-faced young woman, in the city to apply for a visa. After the screening of A Day with Jahnabi, a docu-drama starring the Assamese girl and directed by Saswati Bandyopadhyay, at the Barcelona conference on AIDS, she caught the international eye. She has now been invited to participate in a research project in the US.

Her optimism flags at times. “Sometimes I feel that, though it will take time, things will work out,” she smiles. There are moments, particularly when she goes from pillar to post in search of accommodation, when it is harder to keep her chin up, and to continue to work. “Why should I do anything for the Assam that hasn’t been able to accept me'” She has recently met Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi who has promised to find her government accommodation.

The survivor does more than share her story. Apart from her job as counsellor for the Assam State AIDS Control Society, she has launched her own organisation, the Assam Network for Positive People, on August 13. “Most of the people who have approached me so far have been widowed by the disease, just like me,” she explains.

Human rights, availability of medicine and healthcare are issues that she feels require immediate attention. “Most HIV-positive people cannot find employment once people get to know. How will they take care of themselves'” she asks. Awareness, as far as this activist is concerned is the only thing that can make a difference. Jahnabi herself had no idea what the disease was till she lost her husband to it.

There is no one, however, to help Jahnabi. She has not yet experienced full-blown symptoms of the disease, but suffers from frequent lung infections. She cannot afford the Rs 25,000 she needs for medication every month.

But she is not angry at all.

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